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The High Cost of Driving While Poor

Alameda County traps people in poverty with steep fines for minor traffic infractions — in a cruel system that depends on punishing Black and low-income residents and is plagued by hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.

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In another case later that month, in response to a defendant asking whether he should sit or stand when giving his testimony, Culver replied: "Whatever you want — you can lie down!"

Later, Culver scolded the man for arguing that the Berkeley cop (who accused him of rolling through a stop sign) could not have seen him from her position, saying, "I can't believe the officer did not see what she testified to. ... It's just ridiculous."

When that defendant argued that his slow speed through the intersection indicated that he had, in fact, stopped, Culver raised his voice: "I don't know why you have suffering wonderment. That's exactly how people go through the stop sign. ... What jackass would go through a stop sign at full speed? That's enough — it's $238, what do you want to do about the money?"

In one case, when a driver contested the driving speed supposedly caught by a type of radar speed gun known as a "lidar," Culver responded, sarcastically: "I understand. So the lidar is wrong. ... We're gonna throw that lidar unit out as soon as this trial is over."

On another day, he told a woman who brought photos as evidence of confusing signage that her images were "some junk," interrupting her and saying, "No, no, uh uh, we're not going to go down that trail of thinking I'm stupid."

One particularly tense case I witnessed in Culver's courtroom involved a woman who was accused of driving in the carpool lane when she was by herself. She tried to explain that she had very briefly swerved into the lane to avoid a reckless driver that nearly collided with her. Culver quickly got fed up: "What would be the reason that this officer would lie?" After he issued a guilty verdict with a $705 fine, the woman said she could only pay $5 a month because she is unemployed — a remark that clearly angered Culver.

"You're going to pay what's ordered!" he bellowed, adding, "My patience is wearing thin, and I tell you it wouldn't be a good thing if it were to wear out. This attitude thing, you keep it or get out of here. ... Enough is enough."

The woman stormed out of the courtroom, muttering that the only crime she committed was "driving while Black."

Carlos Smith, the San Leandro man who missed a court appearance due to a carjacking, has appeared before Culver and described him this way: "What he tries to do is cut down on the nonsense and excuses ... but he doesn't allow you to tell your story. Basically, he wants his money."

In Culver's courtroom and throughout Alameda County, data shows that for many defendants, there's really only one way to leave traffic court without a massive fine: when the citing officer fails to show up to the trial, the case is automatically dismissed. This happens often. The first time I showed up to trials in Department 102, not a single cop appeared and Culver dismissed every case. Last year, out of 27,000 trials, cops failed to appear in 55 percent of cases, according to data that Wilson provided. Cases are also dismissed when there is insufficient evidence, Wilson said, noting that a total of 63 percent of 2014 traffic trials resulted in dismissal.

A majority of traffic court defendants, however, don't even make it to trial. Out of 66,000 people arraigned in traffic court last year, 68 percent pleaded guilty or no contest, meaning they did not attempt to fight the charges and agreed from the start of the court process to just pay the fines.

For those who go to trial and find the cop that cited them in the courtroom, the odds are very slim that a judge will rule against the officer. Across Alameda County last year, traffic commissioners ruled that defendants were not guilty in only 7.5 percent of trials in which police officers testified.


Civil rights advocates said an important first step in slowing down the fast lane to debt for low-income defendants would be for court commissioners to take advantage of the wide discretion that the law allows to issue less harsh punishments. But ultimately, they argued, fundamental policy changes are necessary to create a more equitable and effective system. Systemic change is critical in large part because the current judicial funding model is so deeply flawed — something judges have increasingly recognized over the years.

Because the court system at many levels, including traffic court, depends so heavily on fines and fees associated with convictions, there is an inherent conflict of interest for judges. "We're supposed to be neutral parties, but then we impose a fine and fee which supports government," said Yolo County Superior Court Judge Dave Rosenberg, who is also a member of the Judicial Council. "It puts judges in an awkward position."

Slough, the San Bernardino County judge, said that she hopes judges don't let budget pressures influence their individual sentencing decisions and the fines they order. But the reality, she said, is that "everyone, from the ground level up, is mindful that jobs are being lost, courts are being closed, people are being laid off, staff and court hours are shortened." What's more, other public agencies (such as county hospitals) that directly lose funding when court revenue from fines and fees drop sometimes actively pressure courts to keep the money flowing, she said. "There's a real tension there."

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